Clean Water: A 21st-Century Dilemma
Clean Water is one of three Excellence Initiatives in The College of Arts and Sciences
While some areas of the world brim with fresh, clean water, growing demand for this precious natural resource has resulted in severe shortages across the globe, from Africa, South Asia, and Australia to the American West, South, and Southwest. Moreover, climate change is likely to spur population shifts from drier, hotter areas to more temperate areas, putting added pressure on water resources.
Increasingly, policy makers in countries all over the world are seeking solutions to the global water crisis through scientific research. The College of Arts and Sciences has assumed a leadership role at Syracuse University in building a diverse team of scientists with the expertise needed to address these global issues through the newly established Clean Water Initiative. “The College of Arts and Sciences, the University, and the wider Syracuse research communities have a critical role to play in the world of water – locally, nationally, and globally,” says Dean George Langford. “The College’s Clean Water Initiative will advance water-related research both in The College and across the University.”
The College has a strong cohort of top-level scientists, scholars, and technologists working on a wide range of water issues, from water quality and quantity to the legal, political, and social ramifications of the world’s endangered water supply. The Clean Water Initiative draws together, under a single umbrella, experts from a variety of fields; formalizes and supports existing collaboration; and promotes the development of new partnerships. Such collaborations and partnerships also attract more research dollars, high-quality faculty who will broaden the University’s areas of expertise, and excellent students. Faculty in The College’s departments of Earth Sciences and Biology, the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Sciences’ Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, The Maxwell Schools’ Department of Geography, and the College of Law, are involved in the initiative along with colleagues at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF), the Upstate Freshwater Institute, and others.
Attracting multi-million dollar grants from such agencies as the National Science Foundation, non-profit foundations, and other sources requires a large center or program where multiple investigators work together across disciplines to focus on critical, complex issues. The multi-disciplinary Clean Water Initiative focuses on such areas as climate change and its effect on the ocean, storms, and freshwater supply; the rapid and worldwide melting of glaciers, ice sheets, and snow pack; the degradation and overuse of freshwater supplies; and the impact of all these issues on societies and ecologies worldwide.“We have talented faculty at SU who can look at almost any water issue that comes down the pike,” says Donald I. Siegel, a hydrogeologist and Meredith Professor in Earth Sciences who’s been working on wetlands, groundwater contamination, and other major water issues for 30 years. “Our scientists are studying every aspect of world water as well as water beyond our world,” he says.
The College has committed $4 million to support the Clean Water Initiative. The money will provide startup funds for new faculty, fellowships, equipment, staff, and more. Additionally, a search is underway for a senior faculty member to lead the Clean Water Initiative. “We are looking for a scientist who can bring to the program an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to the study of water at SU,” Langford says.
Among the many water-related projects the new director will encounter at SU is the work being done by Siegel, who has considerable expertise in the impact of crude oil and other contaminants on groundwater systems and wetlands. His public comments on the science of hydrofracking (the removal of natural gas from shale beds) have stirred controversy in Central New York. Siegel believes the release of methane gas through hydrofracking is unlikely to lead to widespread contamination of groundwater systems. “It’s the salt they should be concerned about,” Siegel says.
Salt is one of the potential contaminants introduced in hydrofracking, but Siegel maintains that road salt, septic systems, and natural salt are more likely to contaminate groundwater. He is seeking funding to develop a method of “fingerprinting” water contaminated with salt, methane, or other substances in order to trace the contamination to its source—natural or manmade. Siegel also collaborates with Shuquing An of Nanjing University to find solutions for nutrient contamination in the Taihu Lake region of Eastern China.
In the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Charles T. Driscoll, University Professor of Environmental Systems Engineering and a member of the Clean Water Initiative, has spent 31 years working on acid rain and mercury contamination in Onondaga Lake and the lakes and streams of the Adirondacks. He recently expanded his research to include water quality issues on Lake Ontario and water systems in Central New York and the effects of climate change on spring runoff and water quality and quantity in the Northeast.
An engineer with joint appointments in the departments of Biology, Chemistry and Earth Sciences, Driscoll is comfortable working across intellectual and institutional boundaries, which he believes is critical to solving the complex problems society faces. “Think about climate change – it’s so complex, so encompassing, no single discipline is going to be able to address the problem,” Driscoll says.
Other areas of water research include:
Water Resources and Climate Change
• Professor Christopher Scholz (Earth Sciences) studies large lakes in tropical Africa, the Finger Lakes of Central New York, and other lakes around the globe to recover records of past climate from lake basins that could help predict the effects of climate change on worldwide water levels. (See sidebar)
• Associate Professor Linda Ivany (Earth Sciences) is looking at how oceans and marine organisms responded to a super-greenhouse climate in Earth's distant past. Elevated carbon dioxide results not only in warming, but also in acidification of the oceans with consequences for marine life. Her work could provide insight as to what might happen if the Earth’s greenhouse gases were to double or triple in the future.
• Assistant Professor Gregory Hoke (Earth Sciences) compares variations in the molecular composition of modern rain, river waters, and soil temperature with information recorded in ancient sedimentary rock to reconstruct past physical and environmental conditions at the Earth’s surface. His work takes him to the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina and to the Tibetan Plateau in China.
• Assistant Professor Jason Fridley (Biology) studies how invasive species and other plants respond to global warming, especially to changes in rainfall patterns.
• Professor Mark Ritchie’s (Biology) research takes him to such places as the Serengeti plains in Africa and the high desert of Utah to study the effects of variations in rainfall on native and invading plants and animals, and how human-caused modifications of carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the air affect ecosystems.
• Assistant Professor Laura Lautz (Earth Sciences) studies the interaction between streams and groundwater (see sidebar) and how that relates to issues of contamination and overall water quality.
• Associate Professor Jacob Bendix (Geography) researches river environments and how floods affect species diversity.
• Assistant Professor Zunli Lu (Earth Sciences) is an expert on the global water cycle and ocean chemistry. He also studies the formation of methane ice crystals—the same crystals that clogged the “top hat” BP used in one of its failed attempts to plug the Gulf oil spill earlier this year.
• Assistant Professor Peng Gao (Geography) works in watershed hydrology and mathematical modeling.
Water Resources and Pubic Policy
• Assistant Professor Farhana Sultana (Geography) uses water as a lens through which she looks at a variety of social issues, including power, public health, and gender. (See sidebar)
• Professor Suzanne Baldwin (Earth Sciences), who specializes in thermochronology and tectonics, works with the NASA-funded New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. One of the projects involves experiments on minerals that may provide clues about the timescales for which water was present on Mars.